Coast Guard plane medevacs several critically-ill patients from Unalaska following days of inclement weather
Five people were medevaced out of Unalaska Sunday on a Coast Guard C130.
“In truth, it wasn't that unique of a situation, except the weather compounded what we deal with on a daily basis,” said Jennifer Heller, interim director of operations and a certified nurse midwife at the island’s Iliuliuk Family and Health Services clinic.
She said they ran the gamut on critically-ill patients last week: from a possible appendicitis to a pregnant patient and a boat injury. And while staff had been trying to get at least two of them off island since Wednesday, high winds and stormy weather stopped air travel.
“We had called the Coast Guard on Saturday, but the weather was too bad for them to come,” Heller said. “So they were on our radar. They were trying. And they told us that they had a weather window on Sunday. So we packed up all five people that we'd been monitoring and managing here at the clinic and they got to where they needed to go.”
A local locum doctor and FEMA nurse accompanied the patients on the Coast Guard medevac.
Generally, clinic providers would hand the patients off to emergency room staff at a nearby hospital, but Heller said Unalaska’s situation is unique.
IFHS is funded as a federally-qualified community health center. But because it’s 800 air miles from the nearest hospital and responsible for serving the large population of both locals and seafood industry workers, providers are required to be available 24/7, according to Heller.
“All community health centers will have an answering line where a nurse can usually talk you through, ‘This is something you have to go to the ER for. This is something that can wait until morning,’ that kind of thing,” she said. “But we are the ER.”
When recruiting providers to work in the Aleutian port, Heller said they look for people for the widest scope of health care practice there really is: from primary care to chronic care to urgent care and emergencies.
The only things they don’t do at the clinic are surgeries and births. The last baby to be born on island was in 2018.
“It's rewarding work, it's important work, and we all feel that, but it can be really exhausting work,” Heller said. “It's not like our community has more disease, more pathology, more accidents than other places. We're not like an urban center that has gunshot wounds and car accidents. But I do think it's a low level of stress when you have to be on call every night for a week. Even if you're only called in three nights, you know that you could be called in any night. And you know that you could be called in for a friend, a friend of your kids — people that you know and love. And I think that adds a twist of stress to taking the call.”
Heller said the clinic is short-staffed at the moment, but is actively working to recruit people who would be a good fit for the community.